Florida's Froggy Fracas: Hunters Hopping Mad

A hunting ban raises questions about managing federal land

By , Sprcial to The Christian Science Monitor

The Everglades pig frog - sought after as a delicacy - is not an endangered species. But further up the food chain some of its predators say they're under siege.

Frog hunters in Big Cypress Preserve, one of two federal parks in Florida's Everglades region and one of the state's most popular frog-hunting areas, are upset with new federal rules limiting airboats and frogging in the preserve.

The dispute mirrors skirmishes elsewhere in the US over the management of and access to federally protected lands. The challenge for park officials is to protect resources while balancing the needs of commercial users and a rapidly growing population of recreational visitors.

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What's riled froggers is a new bag limit for the leggy amphibians. The curb comes on the heels of an unprecedented frenzy by commercial froggers in the southeast corner of Big Cypress earlier this year. The area had become something of a frog haven after being closed to public access for several years to allow nature to recover from hurricane Andrew and tropical storm Gordon.

"When we opened it back up ... commercial froggers who have a circuit through the state just happened to drop by and find good pickings in the preserve," says Wally Hibbard, Big Cypress's superintendent. "So their presence was much more visible and aggressive this last year than it had ever been before."

Mr. Hibbard says 4,000 pounds of frogs were taken from the preserve over a 30-day period. The limit was introduced when the size of harvested frogs diminished, indicating a potential threat to the population.

Froggers harvest their catch with a "gig," a pronged spear, and with a small spotlight strapped to their head that paralyzes the frogs as car headlights do a deer.

While recreational frogging and other types of hunting are legal in Big Cypress, it's illegal to sell any of the take. So, unable to discern commercial froggers from recreational ones, the preserve managers closed down the southeast corner again.

The area was recently re-opened after Big Cypress managers came up with a plan to keep commercial froggers at bay: a daily bag and possession limit per airboat, vehicle, or vessel, of one five-gallon bucket of whole frogs, or 18 pounds of dressed frogs.

"It's pretty broad knowledge that a bag limit ... makes it economically impossible to harvest frogs and make money," Hibbard explains.

But even without the limit, frogging is far from lucrative, some say. "Commercial frogging - that's a slow way to starve," quips Dave Balman, an Everglades denizen whose family has been here since his grandmother arrived on horseback from Michigan last century.

Mr. Balman, president of the Airboat Association of Florida, says conservationists' and park managers' fears of over-frogging are grossly exaggerated. But he is more disgruntled about a new overnight ban on the frog hunter's preferred mode of transport - the airboat.

The banned period, from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., is prime frogging time. Glen Wilsey, a guide at Gator Park airboat tours just east of Big Cypress and an airboat association member, thinks the ban is the start of a gradual effort to force airboaters out of Big Cypress altogether. "This is what we're worried about and what we fight against - to keep the lands belonging to the people and not to the federal government," he says.

But Superintendent Hibbard argues that the overnight airboat ban is meant to provide a reasonable "quiet time" in the preserve for animals and people who might be camping and trying to sleep.

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